WYD pilgrimage 2019: First stop Washington

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An account of the start of the WYD journey by Sydney pilgrims

The first full day of the Sydney Catholic Youth pilgrimage to World Youth Day began with a visit to the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington DC.

Pilgrims explored the JPII exhibit, which featured images, photos and text from the life of the late pontiff who established the first international World Youth Day in 1985.

See related story: Young pilgrims commissioned to find Christ at WYD

Even though many of the pilgrims are too young to remember much of his pontificate, they were struck by his relevance to their current pilgrimage, and to the world today.

They learnt about JPII’s vision for World Youth Day; the coming together of young people from around the world as an affirmation that they are not alone in their faith.

Sydney pilgrims
Sydney pilgrims began their journey at the St John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. PHOTO: Gelina Montierro

They were encouraged and inspired by his dedication to the dignity of every human person, from conception until natural death, and his strong words about the duty to protect life at all stages.

The pilgrims venerated his relics in a side chapel before coming together for their first Mass as a pilgrimage group.

In his homily, Bishop Richard Umbers exhorted the pilgrims to follow Christ’s example in their pursuit of holiness. “It’s normal to have temptations,” he told them.

“But it’s also normal to overcome them… with God, it’s possible. In the midst of our struggles, our temptations, our falling over, Christ redeems us as a man. He shows us the way as a man.”

People praying
Pilgrims at prayer during Mass at the shrine. PHOTO: Gelina Montierro

The Gospel of the day told how Jesus would rise early in the morning to pray. Bishop Umbers challenged the pilgrims to do the same, warning them that part of getting in a good routine of morning prayer meant getting to bed on time!

At the end of Mass, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP told the pilgrims about the last time he spoke to JPII.

“He asked me how many professed religious there were in Australia, and I told him that sadly, the numbers were declining,” the Archbishop said.

“Then he asked me how many kangaroos there were. I told him there were about 80 million, and he told me that he wanted more religious than kangaroos.”

At the Lincoln Memorial. PHOTO: Gelina Montierro

The Archbishop puzzled about how a population of 25 million could meet such a goal, but encouraged the young people to pray about their vocation during the pilgrimage.

Joining the group were Sister Cecilia Rose OP and Sister Moana Grace OP, both from Sydney who have joined the Nashville Dominican Sisters, and who just happened to also be at the JPII Shrine with their pilgrimage group.

After Mass it was time for some Washington sightseeing. They visited Union Station, the White House, the ANZAC Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Korean and Vietnam War memorials.

They were amazed and saddened to hear that the Vietnam War memorial bore the names of more than 58,000 who died in the war at an average age of 22 years (which is close to the average age of the pilgrimage group).

The loss of life, and of years, was another confirmation to the group of the value of human life. Despite the icy cold weather, they stood motionless as a Vietnam War veteran spoke to them of his experience of the war.

The pilgrims then gathered back at the hotel for small group discussion, and ended the day by praying a Holy Hour together.